Symposium explores cancer stem cells and tumor metabolism

Dean Julio Frenk, Gökhan Hotamisligil, John B. Little, and Gerald Chan, SM '75, SD '79

November 16, 2012 — An emerging area of science is looking at not just how low-dose radiation harms cells, but also how cells respond to deal with this stress—and how science might harness those same mechanisms to benefit human health. On October 26-27, 2012 at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), about 200 scientists gathered to explore this idea further, at the 15th annual John B. Little Symposium.

The 12 presenters at this year’s conference came from many fields: immunology, systems biology, epigenetics, radiation oncology, tumor metabolism, and stem-cell science. The symposium, named for James Steven Simmons Professor of Radiobiology Emeritus John B. Little, focuses on radiation biology but aims to bring together basic scientists and scholars with a broad range of perspectives. “When you fill up a room with people who think the same way and work on the same things, it’s unlikely that you will produce something new and exciting,” explained Gökhan S. Hotamisligil, chair of the Department of Molecular Metabolism at HSPH and one of the symposium’s hosts. “We try to bring together people who think differently, maybe even disagree, in a constructive and creative manner.”

The conference, hosted by the John B. Little Center for Radiation Sciences and Environmental Health, was organized this year by Department of Molecular Metabolism faculty Zhi-Min Yuan, professor of radiobiology, and James R. Mitchell, assistant professor of genetics and complex diseases.

Little, who this year celebrated the 50th anniversary of his appointment to the HSPH faculty, was one of the first scholars to characterize problems in public health as interactions between environmental stressors and humans’ response to those stressors, said Hotamisligil. That approach has since become a foundational idea in public health, as well as a central piece of the vision of the Department of Molecular Metabolism, and it guides the agenda for the symposium each year.

See a list of this year’s speakers.

–Elizabeth Gudrais

photo: Kent Dayton